RSPB asks European Commission to investigate Natural England’s “probably unlawful” activities regarding Walshaw Moor Estate

After six months of investigation, the RSPB has decided that Natural England has failed in its duties to enforce wildlife and habitat protection laws on Walshaw Moor Estate, and has asked the European Commission to step in.

Mike Clarke, RSPB chief executive, said

The decision to lodge this complaint has not been taken lightly, but this is a vitally important issue which centres on the Government’s statutory duty to protect our natural environment.


The RSPB wants the European Commission to investigate whether Natural England has acted unlawfully, by dropping its prosecution of Walshaw Moor Estate and entering a new management agreement with the Estate. The RSPB believes that these actions amount to a failure by Natural England to uphold and enforce two key European Union directives:

  • Council Directive 92/43/EEC on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora (the Habitats Directive)
  • Directive 2009/147/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council on the conservation of wild birds (codified version) (the Birds Directive).

Walshaw Moor Estate management agreement has “fundamental flaws”

The new agreement allows Walshaw Moor Estate to continue to burn and drain blanket bog, and to carry out many of the other land management practices that Natural England had previously been prosecuting it for.

Mike Clarke explained

Natural England – the Government’s wildlife watchdog – has dropped its prosecution without giving an adequate explanation and without securing restoration of this habitat. It has also entered into a management arrangement which we consider has fundamental flaws.  This combination of actions is probably unlawful and will do little, if anything, to realise the Coalition Government’s stated ambition to restore biodiversity.

Here’s a summary of the RSPB complaint to the EU Commission.

Local campaign group Ban the Burn

The RSPB is particularly concerned that Natural England is failing to protect the blanket bog on Walshaw Moor Estate. This is also the focus of Hebden Bridge group Ban the Burn, which is campaigning for a ban on blanket bog draining and burning.

The Ban the Burn campaign is informed by Natural England’s scientific assessment that restoration of blanket bogs is an important way of reducing the risk of flooding in rivers fed from upland catchment areas – such as Hebden Water. The Ban the Burn campaign agrees with the RSPB that Natural England is failing to enforce measures to restore the blanket bog on Walshaw Moor Estate, and wants this situation remedied.

You can sign a petition to Defra and Natural England to ban blanket bog burning and draining.

How the complaint process works

Once the European Commission has received the RSPB complaint, it has fifteen days to respond.

If it decides that Natural England may have infringed European Union (EU) law, it will open an “infringement procedure”. This could lead the European Commission to take the case to the European Court of Justice.

Andrew Dodd, RSPB Acting Head of Casework, explained the process once the RSPB has sent the complaint,

the European Commission … will then take several weeks to process it.  Assuming they accept the complaint, they will then send it to the UK Government.  At this stage, we have to go through this due process.

Martin Harper, the RSPB Director of Conservation, is blogging additional info about the RSPB complaint to the EU Commission.

Natural England to sit tight

Invited to comment on the RSPB’s complaint, Natural England’s press department issued a defence of their 25 year agreement with Walshaw Moor Estate, which dates from March 2012.

“Until this agreement was reached there were no agreed limits to management activities, such as burning, grazing and vehicular use on the Walshaw Estate – the consents that had been in place since 1995 permitted these operations to take place in perpetuity and without limitation on their scale or location.

“Our priority has been to secure an outcome that provides certainty for this important site and through controls on management activities delivers improved environmental protection. For the first time, burning activities on the Walshaw Estate will be subject to specific controls. The agreement sets restrictions on the maintenance and creation of infrastructure and an active programme of peat re-wetting has also been agreed, so that blanket bog restoration can take place. We are aware that the RSPB has launched a complaint at the European Commission against Natural England’s handling of the Walshaw site. We await the outcome of this process before determining what the implications are – if any – for the agreement that is now in place between NE and the Walshaw Estate.”

Updated 15 October to include information about the two EU Directives and the complaint process.

Updated 17 October with link to RSPB Director of Conservation’s blog and to RSPB summary of their complaint to EU Commission

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